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Best of 2014: Nick’s Top Pop Culture Stuff

best of 2014

So, it’s time for a “sort-of” pop culture  top ten list from me. A Best of 2014 list.  The problem with being a hermit is that it’s hard enough to find ten total things that would even count in the top ten.  For example, I gather that Birdman would likely find a place on this list, but since I missed my chance to see it,  I can’t cheat and put it on. This list, then, is more of a reflection of “things I haven’t gotten around to seeing” than it is a reflection of the “best” of pop culture. It’s an incomplete list, but here is that list just in time for New Years Eve  (if indeed, it get through the usual review process on time).AMC Movie Talk 24Hur Talk Marathon.

10. AMC Movie Talk: The 24-Hour Movie Talk Episode

This will be on no one else’s list, but, dammit, it’s on mine. It has to be. Saying anything about popular culture, particularly with regards to comic book and genre films, simply rambling off-the-cuff would do little good unless one stays informed as to what’s going on out there in the industry. What films are going to come out? What films fell through? What does it all mean? AMC Movie Talk is a YouTube show that runs pretty much every day, and the panel discusses the latest stories in movie news, as well as “what it all means.” I might not agree with every single opinion I hear on the show, but these guys have a pretty good knowledge base for discussing the most popular films. I found, quite surprisingly, that I do try to tune in each and every day, and that it may be the show that I watch religiously.  Well, early in January, during the show’s end=of-the-year hiatus, the team decided to run a fundraiser to raise money for typhoon victims in the Philippines: the idea was to have a single episode of Movie Talk that would run 24 hours, and during the show, any money that was donated went directly to the Red Cross for typhoon relief. During this episode (which was split into segments for YouTube), they’d cover their own top tens for the past year (worst, best, etc) and most anticipated (for 2014) as well as answer questions from those viewers who had donated to the charity: these questions could be about pretty much any topic related to movies. But the real question was whether or not these guys could stay awake and keep things interesting for the colossally long running time. They succeeded, and the marathon is very entertaining.

The highlight is co-host John Schnepp’s own way of getting people to turn in some big donations. Schnepp is a professional artist, and – for a short time during the marathon – he offered to draw anything that was requested by a donor who contributed (if memory serves) $250 for typhoon relief. He made no money for himself from these donations (it all went to the Red Cross), but he still took the same time he would take if he was getting paid as the professional he is to create (and ink) these professional drawings.

Well done, guys.

Sometime in the segment below, they (tired as hell) discuss Star Wars, and it gets funny!

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9. John Wick

Wow! Sometimes the best action flicks are the ones that have the most straight-forward plot. Oddly, this philosophy seems to be counter-intuitive to the way studios craft most of their big films. These blockbusters seem to revel in overly-convoluted plots with pointless twists and characters who were never what they seemed to be, just to keep the audience interested between those action set-pieces. What usually happens is that if you lay it all out, the plot doesn’t hold up, and these films fail to leave a lasting impression. John Wick is an action film that is a lot simpler, even to the point of being formulaic but that’s what makes it brilliant. A  man gets revenge for the murder of… his dog! Yes! But in the process, we are introduced to the awesome underground society – complete with it’s own rules and sens of honor – created specifically for hit-men, and it all comes together at a secret hotel called the Continental, located right in the middle of Manhattan. This setting alone is more intriguing than other fantastical place put on film this year, whether it’s by Nolan or Marvel.. or whoever. Couple it with some fantastic “gun-fu” fighting choreography and pitch-perfect performances by Keanu Reeves (so good to see him in a  role like this) Adrienne Palicki and Ian McShane. TI might be somewhat of a B-Grade movie, but it’s a real winner, a filet Mignon of 2014’s action pictures.

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8. Star Wars Rebels

The great thing about this animated show is that they scaled it all back a bit. Whereas Clone Wars went for huge scale battles featuring endless armies and it seemed that everyone that wasn’t a clone trooper knew how to use a lightsaber, we needed something a little – smaller. Here’s a great show for kids and fans of this series. The writers are tapping into the kind of storytelling that made the original three films work. Lightsabers are used less frequently than one would expect, and the characters, their histories, and their own outlook on life, determine the direction most of the episodes would take. It finally brings some grit, and a good dose of mystery, back to Star Wars. I heard a rumor that Kanan might feature in the new films as an older character. After watching this show, and learning that neither he nor his companions are too silly or broad, I’d say that he (or any of them) would be most welcome!

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7. Edge of Tomorrow

Most people simply see this film as a remake of Groundhog Day, with action and futuristic combat replacing romance and positive fulfillment. They’re right, to a point, but I think this film would be more appreciated if people could see it it for what it really is: a commentary on video games. When Tom Cruise’s character first finds himself on the front lines of a chaotic battle with aliens, he does not know how to use his mechanized suit. He finds himself marching in the wrong direction. He screams at just about everything, and finds himself unable to stay cool. This, incidentally, is how I feel every time I hit Battlefield 4 on my Playstation 3. I’m still trying to figure out how to even fire my weapons and maybe snag a vehicle before I realize that my team (often actual players somewhere in the world, who are often short of patience) has already lost! Of course. The thing about video games is that practice makes perfect. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise’s character might be ineffective at first, but he gets to keep playing the same battle over and over again. He memorizes where everyone will be, how they’ll move, everything. He gets better and better at fighting this battle, until he has the moves down so well it’s a less a fight for him than a choreographed dance. Isn’t that what seems to happen when you’ve memorized how to complete a level in a video game?

One other thing about this movie: It’s not just smart, it’s damn funny.

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6. Gotham

Most fans of this show watch it for the Batman stuff. They want to see how this story assembles the pieces of the Batman origin story. If it gets something to that effect wrong, they start squawking about it on message boards. Then they get baffled by the episodes that do little to build the Batman mythos. They have a love-hate-but-usually-hate relationship to this show. Me, on the other hand, I love it. I love it for how dumb it is, how silly, how over the top it is, how bold it is, how cliche it is. I love it for all those things. Yeah I’m a huge Batman fan, but the thing  about it is that his origin story is just like every other comic book character’s origin story: there are some basic things that form the foundation of his story (like his parents being killed in a mugging) but the specifics are always being shuffled about from one telling to the next. The canon, as such, is ever changing depending on the time it’s written. So, instead of being a stickler for those details, I can sit back and enjoy a cop show set in a comic book world. Having elements of the Batman back-story provide a touchstone of sorts, a mythos that will give this cop show a bit more depth and resonance, but it’s still a cop show – and it’s unafraid to use all of the conventions that go with it. And having characters investigate the crime of the week in ways that bring in elements of real drama (such as the broad strokes of the mafia war, the plight of street kids), to absurdly comic-booky elements that would be at home in Tim Burton’s version of Batman (Cobblepot’s mother, hard-boiled detective  Harvey Bolluck, who at first seems a lot like Eckhart from Burton’s film) to the completely zany (The Penguin himself, the Balloonman, and the Mark of the Goat) all form a show that will take the viewer into a real comic book world. It’s smarter and more daring than even the fans will give it credit for, mainly because it’s unafraid. Having Bruce Wayne and Alfred in these shows might give fans something familiar to work from – and he is a character whose essence has made its way into the general public thanks to some great films and shows over the years – but this show just wants to be a gritty dark, and ultimately insane concoction that doesn’t have to be bound by the rules of reality, playing more like a moving comic book.

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5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

No, Guardians of The Galaxy’s not going to make this list. It was a fun film, to be sure, and Rocket had this really great gag involving an artificial leg that was inspired, but the film was a bit to full of itself for me to really relate to it. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier – while still far from perfect – has a bit more to chew on. The actual conspiracy plot about a secret USB drive doesn’t quite hold up as well as fans remember –  if you lay it all out – but it almost does, and it certainly was a good enough way to – in April – give the summer film season a jump-start after the long winter. The action in the first two acts of the film is pretty great, with crisp and well-directed choreography and direction, and with the sense that these action scenes actually mattered. Particularly awesome was Nick Fury’s big car chase scene: it’s very satisfying to learn, just a bit at a time, that his SUV’s voice command system is actually closer to Tony Stark’s JARVIS system than we thought. That’s how you effectively use comic book elements well in a film that tries to stay grounded.  The film might also deserve some kudos for having the most teeth of any of the Marvel films and changing the landscape for all future films, but this pleasing revelation is almost undone by a video-game climax involving flying aircraft carriers and dueling video game bosses on narrow bridges. It’s almost as if they couldn’t make the 70’s style thriller they started to make without knowing for certain that the Avengers fanboys would be pleased, so the film concluded with an action scene that felt like it belonged more in that film. My big question: What was the villains’ endgame here? Once they kill millions of people all at once, then what?

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4. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit book has always been a tough nut for a screenwriter to crack. That’s because the shorter the book, the more important that the details that are given actually play out in the film version. Here’s the example: it’s not really necessary – at least to the plot – that the dwarves sing a song about breaking Bilbo’s dishes – but it was such a memorable scene from such a short novel that it has to be in any film based on this book. Same goes for the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum. Or the “Flies and Spiders” scene. Or the barrels scene. Or the Bilbo/ Smaug scene. Or pretty much every scene. It’s a classic book but a really short one, so every scene in it is – pardon the pun – precious. You have to show it all in order to rightly call it The Hobbit. But having those scenes play out in a film takes time, so the film had to split up, first in half as two gargantuan movies, and later, into a trilogy of long films. The story’s unusual structure also makes it difficult to really consolidate it into one movie and have it be satisfying. So, now we have the Hobbit trilogy. Upon seeing the final film, a case could be made by weeding out some elements of each of the films to make this a two-movie epic, but that doesn’t mean that this last film doesn’t work. I rather enjoyed watching a Middle Earth film that I didn’t quite know exactly where it was going (after all the battle of the title is more of a footnote in the book) and, let’s face it: these characters are great. Of particular note here is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. Thorin runs the gamut of emotions here, from the dedicated leader of his company to stubborn king (thanks to “dragon sickness”) and back to one who appreciates the value of home more than anything, and Armitage manages to make this work. I don’t think there has been another character in all of the Middle Earth films who has made gone through as much of a change in such a short time, so the challenge for this actor to pull it off was very apparent. He does pull it off, and I’m still thinking of his final scene, even now. The movie was constructed in such a way to make it perfect for viewing as the keystone of a Hobbit/ Lord of the Rings marathon, so it it’s certainly a must-see for fans of the series regardless of how well it holds up on its own.

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3. Interstellar

In many of my favorite science fiction films, outer space is depicted as a place of stunning beauty and wonder, making it the perfect setting for a grand adventure. This is true for sci-fi’s big guns, Star Wars and Star Trek, but I found, surprisingly that it was true for last year’s Gravity: look at how many stars you can see in almost any shot in the film. On a high definition screen, it seems the entire band of stars that comprise the Milky Way (not the entire galaxy.. just the band of stars in the arm of the galaxy that the Earth resides in, also referred to as the Milky Way). But with Interstellar, director Christpher Nolan takes a different approach in his depiction of space. Often starless (like actual documentary footage that NASA pipes down to us from various spacecraft) as well as bland, we feel a bit on edge when the characters approach sighs of actual danger. The film’s black hole, Gargantua, is stark and unnerving to even just look at. Nolan opted to use almost “beauty shots” of the spacecraft in the film and would often fasten his camera to the hull, or off to the side so we have to orient ourselves to what we’re seeing (he won’t do the work for us) and, as a result of only using a few select shots, he has made the film a far more visceral experience than it would be. But perhaps even more haunting than his depiction of space in the film is his depiction of, our home, the Earth. It’s disconcerting to see people try to cling to some semblance of a normal life when they are constantly breathing in dust, and their diet is limited to foods based on corn – and they know it’s only going to get worse. But gradually. It’s scary to see this scenario because it feels like it could really happen.

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2. X-Men: Days of Future Past

The ultimate resolution in this comic book film hinges not on obtaining (or destroying) a MacGuffin, which is what you’d expect in a film like this,. Instead it lies within the psyche of the very same characters that hold the future in their hands. Our antagonist is the student of two teachers – teachers who have opposing philosophies, neither of which are entirely wrong or entirely right. To simply concede to one or the other would mean that this antagonist would sell herself short in the process. This movie might go nine yards toward a first down based on a great time travel technique, a few well-placed laughs, and it’s memorable action scenes, but it makes the first down because the characters are important. Each of the main characters in this film must face challenges within themselves before its over. Each must stand their ground, and act according to what he or she truly believes, and the film doesn’t skimp on this aspect at all.

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1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser

Yes, it’s only a teaser. Yup… 88 seconds. I believe someone out there has timed it. Wait, I can just look at the YouTube video to see how long it is.

Yes, indeed, it’s the shortest entry on this list. But this teaser trailer is all about the promise of expanding the wonderful possibilities of the Star Wars universe using the best old -fashioned film-making techniques along with a  few new ones. As Ray Stanz would say “the possibilities are endless.”  The Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, Middle Earth, The United Federation of Planets… all these magnificent places have wound up a lot like the castles of England: it’s more and more difficult to find a square inch of these places that hasn’t been featured in a film before. Yet, when I look at the Star Wars galaxy, I see exactly that.. an entire galaxy, where almost any type of story can be told. The original three films ( Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) might chronicle a lynchpin event, but, more importantly they had set a unique look, feel and tone that has marinated in the imaginations of millions. What other franchises can have a mysterious man wearing a dark cloak step into a scene, and then end with an some awesome dog-fighting featuring lasers and fool loop maneuver? There is an ineffable quality to Star Wars that can’t be described, but this teaser, short as it is, seems to get across very well. It’s a setting for adventure and story telling that is entirely constructed from artifice – it’s nothing like reality. Yet watching the best Star Wars films, it all feels real somehow, and all of the various elements feel of-a-piece; the audience can’t help but be drawn in by it all, from characters who have very clear-cut goals,to that strange bit of detail you only just noticed on the edges of the frame. Despite how easy it is to pinpoint all of the  things over the course of human history and storytelling itself  that clearly inspired this saga, the bottom line is that there is nothing that feels quite like Star Wars. Nothing.

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Do these fit in your Best of 2014 list? Let us know.

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Comments (1)

I would have put Snowpiercer in place of Rebels.. I thought it was released last year overseas, that’s why it was omitted. See it

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